Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.
The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.
But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).
This is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.
What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think i would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.
It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.
The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the flood gates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly, Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.
Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.
“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)